Equity & Diversity

The Ongoing Challenges, and Possible Solutions, to Improving Educational Equity

By Eesha Pendharkar — January 26, 2023 4 min read
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Schools across the country were already facing major equity challenges before the pandemic, but the disruptions it caused exacerbated them.

After students came back to school buildings after more than a year of hybrid schooling, districts were dealing with discipline challenges and re-segregating schools. In a national EdWeek Research Center survey from October, 65 percent of the 824 teachers, and school and district leaders surveyed said they were more concerned now than before the pandemic about closing academic opportunity gaps that impact learning for students of different races, socioeconomic levels, disability categories, and English-learner statuses.

But educators trying to prioritize equity have an uphill battle to overcome these challenges, especially in the face of legislation and school policies attempting to fight equity initiatives across the country.

The pandemic and the 2020 murder of George Floyd drove many districts to recognize longstanding racial disparities in academics, discipline, and access to resources and commit to addressing them. But in 2021, a backlash to such equity initiatives accelerated, and has now resulted in 18 states passing laws restricting lessons on race and racism, and many also passing laws restricting the rights and well-being of LGBTQ students.

This slew of Republican-driven legislation presents a new hurdle for districts looking to address racial and other inequities in public schools.

During an Education Week K-12 Essentials forum last week, journalists, educators, and researchers talked about these challenges, and possible solutions to improving equity in education.

Takeru Nagayoshi, who was the Massachusetts teacher of the year in 2020, and one of the speakers at the forum, said he never felt represented as a gay, Asian kid in public school until he read about the Stonewall Riots, the Civil Rights Movement, and the full history of marginalized groups working together to change systems of oppression.

“Those are the learning experiences that inspired me to be a teacher and to commit to a life of making our country better for everyone,” he said.

“Our students really benefit the most when they learn about themselves and the world that they’re in. They’re in a safe space with teachers who provide them with an honest education and accurate history.”

Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

Schools are still heavily segregated

Almost 70 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, most students attend schools where they see a majority of other students of their racial demographics.

Black students, who accounted for 15 percent of public school enrollment in 2019, attended schools where Black students made up an average of 47 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report.

They attended schools with a combined Black and Latinx enrollment averaging 67 percent, while Latinx students attended schools with a combined Black and Latinx enrollment averaging 66 percent.

Overall, the proportion of schools where the majority of students are not white increased from 14.8 percent of schools in 2003 to 18.2 percent in 2016.

“Predominantly minority schools [get] fewer resources, and that’s one problem, but there’s another problem too, and it’s a sort of a problem for democracy,” said John Borkowski, education lawyer at Husch Blackwell.

“I think it’s much better for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy, when people have opportunities to interact with one another, to learn together, you know, and you see all of the problems we’ve had in recent years with the rising of white supremacy, and white supremacist groups.”

School discipline issues were exacerbated because of student trauma

In the absence of national data on school discipline, anecdotal evidence and expert interviews suggest that suspensions—both in and out of school—and expulsions, declined when students went remote.

In 2021, the number of incidents increased again when most students were back in school buildings, but were still lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to research by Richard Welsh, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.

But forum attendees, who were mostly district and school leaders as well as teachers, disagreed, with 66 percent saying that the pandemic made school incidents warranting discipline worse. That’s likely because of heightened student trauma from the pandemic. Eighty-three percent of forum attendees who responded to a spot survey said they had noticed an increase in behavioral issues since resuming in-person school.

Restorative justice in education is gaining popularity

One reason Welsh thought discipline incidents did not yet surpass pre-pandemic levels despite heightened student trauma is the adoption of restorative justice practices, which focus on conflict resolution, understanding the causes of students’ disruptive behavior, and addressing the reason behind it instead of handing out punishments.

Kansas City Public Schools is one example of a district that has had improvement with restorative justice, with about two thirds of the district’s 35 schools seeing a decrease in suspensions and expulsions in 2021 compared with 2019.

Forum attendees echoed the need for or success of restorative justice, with 36 percent of those who answered a poll within the forum saying restorative justice works in their district or school, and 27 percent saying they wished their district would implement some of its tenets.

However, 12 percent of poll respondents also said that restorative justice had not worked for them. Racial disparities in school discipline also still persist, despite restorative justice being implemented, which indicates that those practices might not be ideal for addressing the over-disciplining of Black, Latinx, and other historically marginalized students.

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